WASHINGTON -- Key senior administration officials have advocated splitting the leadership of the nation's largest spy agency from that of the military's cyberwarfare command as a final White House decision nears, according to individuals briefed on the discussions.
At a White House meeting of senior national security officials last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he was in favor of ending the current policy of having one official in charge of both the National Security Agency, or NSA, as well as the U.S. Cyber Command, said the individuals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for attribution.
Also, officials appear inclined to install a civilian as the NSA's director for the first time in the agency's 61-year history. Among those said to be potential successors to the current director, Gen. Keith Alexander, is his deputy, John "Chris" Inglis.
While officials have not made a final decision on either issue, national security adviser Susan Rice is expected to make a formal recommendation soon to President Barack Obama, the individuals said.
"Ultimately, the president will make this decision," White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. "At levels below the president, the interagency is still discussing the way forward. Given that we are still looking at the question of whether the [leadership] would be split, we are not yet considering preferred candidates."
The question of whether one director should lead the NSA and Cyber Command -- an arrangement that some say invests too much power in one individual -- has existed since the launch of Cyber Command in 2010. But it has intensified since June, when a series of disclosures based on documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sparked controversy over the agency's surveillance programs.
Ms. Hayden said Gen. Alexander's planned departure next spring made this "a natural point" to look at the question. A decision may be announced within the next few weeks, along with recommendations from separate White House internal and external reviews of surveillance policies.
Some current and former officials say the NSA and Cyber Command have fundamentally different missions -- spying and conducting military attacks -- and that each deserves its own leader.
Earlier this month, Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner said in an interview that Mr. Clapper felt that "there are a number of potential benefits to having separate leaders at NSA and Cyber Command and thinks it's important to take a thorough look at the possibility of separating the positions."
Supporters of the current structure, chief among them Gen. Alexander, say the current arrangement makes sense given that Cyber Command and NSA operate on the same networks, and that Cyber Command is highly dependent on NSA's ability to gain access to adversaries' computer systems for intelligence and to conduct potential operations. The two entities' operations centers sit side-by-side at Fort Meade, Md., with personnel moving freely between both.
Whatever the outcome, said a senior administration official, the key is to ensure that the "interdependencies between Cyber Command and NSA can be preserved." Said the official: "You wouldn't want Cyber Command and NSA dueling for resources."